BEAR LAKE, Idaho (ABC4) — A group of Idahoans and Utahns helped get Idaho Senate Bill 1112 passed during the recent legislative session. The bill “adds to existing law to recognize Bear Lake’s benefits and to provide for its enhancement, protection, and preservation.” Now, Bear Lake Watch is working diligently to get Utah lawmakers to follow suit to protect the southern half of the lake.
Idaho is also known as the Gem State, and it now officially recognizes that Bear Lake is a gem worth preserving and protecting. Bear Lake is roughly 109 square miles and straddles the Idaho-Utah border.
“It’s just a fabulous place and we’re lucky we haven’t ruined it yet,” Claudia Cottle told ABC4. Cottle lives on the shores of the lake. She explained that her husband’s family has called the area home since the early 1900s. She grew up in Utah and fondly remembers family trips to the lake as a child. Cottle added, “I remember driving over that hill and seeing that beautiful lake.” She recounted sitting in the sand along the lake’s shores, feeling the cool water lap up on her feet, and spending countless hours soaking up the warm sun.
For the last 20 years, Cottle has been dedicated to helping preserve the lake. Currently, she is the vice president of government affairs for Bear Lake Watch. The group has roots spanning nearly three decades. At its founding, residents of the area came together to address the issues of water misuse. Since then, the group has worked hand-in-hand with government agencies and private businesses to address the needs of the lake.
“I want to make sure that my grandkids and their kids are going to be able to enjoy it and they’re going to be able to drive over the mountain and say, ‘Wow, look at that beautiful lake,’” stated Cottle. She said it would be a shame if her grandchildren had to one day tell their grandchildren about the incredible blue waters that once existed at the lake.
Cottle and her husband, along with Bear Lake Watch, played a crucial role in the recent passage of Idaho Senate Bill 1112. “It’s not the cure-all,” Cottle said. “It doesn’t do anything, nobody has to do anything, but it points us in one direction.”
The bill states: Bear Lake was a natural lake at the time Idaho gained its statehood and remains a highly valued resource for its native fisheries, recreation, and distinctive characteristics, including its water clarity and mineral and chemical uniqueness, giving it the intense turquoise blue color for which it is known all over the world.
This bill continues: While serving as a reservoir, Bear Lake retains its basic native form and character, preserving much of its valued scenic beauty, navigability, and lake-related recreation opportunities. It is the desire and expectation of the state of Idaho that Bear Lake and its inherent qualities and characteristics be preserved for future generations.
Additionally, the bill outlines the many uses of the lake: The state of Idaho desires to prevent the lake’s degradation in quality and functions and to preserve and enhance the lake’s unique characteristics, including but not limited to native fish and wildlife, unique water quality, native lakebed, navigation, littoral rights, lake-related recreation, and irrigation storage.
Cottle emphasized the need for the state’s recognition of the lake’s many uses. She stated: “There’s a lot of things we need to do to make up for the damage we do as we use it for a reservoir. We can do both.”
The bill encourages greater work in addressing the needs of all who use the lake: To achieve the goals of this section, the state of Idaho encourages collaboration among agencies and stakeholders to help preserve and enhance such interests.
“And I hope that ultimately this law will help drive the cooperation between the two states and all the other stakeholders in ensuring that we take care of it,” Andrew Stokes said referring to the bill. Stokes is the manager of Bear Lake State Park (Idaho). He told ABC4 that the bill adds Bear Lake to a list of other waterbodies in Idaho that already have similar recognition. This gives him hope for the lake’s future. “It’s a unique place,” Stokes stated. “There are four species of fish that are found in Bear Lake, nowhere else in the world… We just want to, through state statute, list it as something worth protecting.”
To ensure the protection of the entire lake, Bear Lake Watch is working with Utah leaders to introduce a similar bill during the next legislative session. “We’re not going to go back the way we were, but we want to stay a steady course to preserve the really cool things about Bear Lake that everybody loves and people value,” added Cottle.
Both Cottle and Stokes mentioned the fast growth along the lake. In Garden City alone, there are about 400 short-term rentals. Many of these are new buildings. As the area continues to be developed, they hope this bill will allow different interest groups to come together and address the needs of the lake to prevent the area from being exploited.
The bill passed the legislature with a unanimous vote. Governor Brad Little (R-Idaho) signed the bill on March 29, 2023. The bill goes into effect on July 1, 2023.